Hacking 4 Defense: A Dynamic Approach to Innovation

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Hannah Croft

Hacking 4 Defense

The Hacking 4 Defense (H4D) initiative came about through the recognition that Defence neeeded to innovate at speed. As part of Defence iQ's ongoing research into innovation and enterprise transformation in Defence, I spoke with Steve Weinstein, part of the H4D Teaching Team at Stanford University, to find out how the initiative has engendered entrepreneurialism, fostered cross-sector networking, and brough about greater innovation in national security thinking and process.

Could you talk about the history of H4D, its core objectives and what benefits the initiative offers the academic and defence communities?

Hacking for MoD, or Hacking for Defense® (H4D), as it is called in the U.S., was the idea of Steve Blank, creator of the Lean Startup movement; and (Ret) Army Colonels Joe Felter and Peter Newell identifying a need for national security innovation at speed. They hypothesised U.S. graduate students could use Lean Startup principles  adapted for mission-driven organisations  to solve some of the nation’s toughest national security and intelligence community challenges at speed. 

To do this, teams of 4-5 Masters students work directly with a government problem sponsor to learn and apply modern entrepreneurial tools and techniques, including Lean Startup methodology and problem curation, to solve a national security or defense problem the government is working to solve today. The first H4D class was piloted at Stanford University in 2016.

The success of this course, and its popularity amongst students who had the opportunity to work on real-world problems, led to H4D becoming a 501(c)3 in the U.S. (the equivalent to a registered charity here in the U.K.).  As more universities took on this programme, H4D partnered with the US Department of Defense to scale across the United States.  This partnership has resulted in H4D being run in 30 U.S. universities, with the goal of 50 by 2022. 

Interest by the UK Ministry of Defence expressed in 2018 led to the initiative being launched in January 2019, and being called “Hacking for MoD.”  Two Pilots, at King’s College London (Department of Defence Studies) and Imperial College London (Institute of Security Studies), were met with great success.  With funding in part from the Defence Innovation Fund, H4MoD will run in 7 U.K. universities in 2020.  Like its U.S. counterpart, H4MoD, operating under the Common Mission Project, is a registered charity in the U.K. 

The core objectives of the programme are to:

  • Provide the government problem sponsors with a deep understanding of their problem and potential solutions;
  • Provide the students with hands-on, real-world experience of working to solve actual tough national problems;
  • Teach the students (and in many cases the sponsors and advisors) how to use the H4D/Lean techniques for solving complex problems;
  • Bridge the gap between universities and the government to form a closer relationship, and provide career opportunities and awareness for the university students;
  • Potentially create companies that are focused on solving critical sponsor problems.

The class draws from a diverse student pool in ways that most classes are not able to do because it brings together engineers, policy, law, medical, business and science students together during the term, where they would otherwise not collaborate.

What are some success stories (I know there are many!) that you might like to highlight, and what are some of the key lessons learnt in terms of setting up H4D and synchronizing thinking, cultures and practice between Defence and Academia/non-traditional defence?

There are many ways to think about the impact of the class. First, it exposes, instructs and creates a network of students, professors, government sponsors, advisors, veterans and mentors all rallying around critical problems facing national defence, and introduces a modern way of creating solutions and companies focused on such solutions. These networks - ecosystems - are already having an impact with the number of students who are interested and now actively pursuing a career in defense.  The precise number of students continuing on in this government career path is not exactly measured; we think it is well over 50%. 

To date, more than 1,000 students have worked to solve 282 defense problems in the U.S. alone. While the goal of the class is not to form startups, nine companies have been formed by student teams motivated by their early stage solution to their sponsor’s problem.

The most well-known of these nine is Capella Space, a radar imagery company, whose original problem focused on synthetic aperture radar, that is working with mission-driven organizations around the globe to solve tough challenges such as identifying illicit activity and responding to disasters. Capella Space came out of the first H4DTM cohort at Stanford University. Capella has since raised over $80M in funding and have secured contracts with the U.S. Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office, among other U.S. government agencies.

Another startup coming out of H4D is Lumineye.  The team, which got its start in the 2017 H4DTM cohort at Boise State University, created a wall-penetrating radar sensor that uses pulse radar technology and signal analysis software to determine the approximate size, range, and movement characteristics of a signal. This technology is used by first responders.  Lumineye worked with Y Combinator to launch their company, won a $120,000 Army xTechSearch2.0 grant last year to continue work on  their sensor and get it into the hands of the warfighter.

However, success stories are not measured by the number of startups coming out of H4D.  Success stories are university students who are, as a result of taking H4D, interested and willing to work with the government on hard problems using a set of tools that work on problems at speed and scale. 

Some of the most valuable lessons learned in scaling this programme are:

  • Ensuring the problems are exciting and defined well enough that the student teams can make progress;
  • The university instructors have an understanding of what it means to be an entrepreneur; and,
  • The government problem sponsor is excited to be a part of the H4D / H4MoD movement.

On the question of lessons learned, there are quite a number but to name a few: Make sure that the problems you find need to be exciting and defined well enough that the students can make progress; that the instructors have an understanding of what it means to be an entrepreneur; and that the sponsor is excited to be part of the H4D movement.

Noting that H4D is described as a “lean startup” that champions ‘entrepreneurial’ thinking– could you talk about what this means in practice? What is the approach to problem-solving, design thinking, etc., how does this engender innovation, and how does this differ to traditional defence models?

Defence models for innovation are typically acquisitions-based, meaning that they start with a predetermined solution in mind and specified in a static set of requirements and are tendered out for bid by traditional vendors. The goal now is to not only bring new solutions to market, but to do it faster and for less cost. The traditional acquisition method frequently fails to deliver state-of-the-art solutions and hence frequently misses the mark for a solution. The current model of government acquisition is what is traditionally defined as a waterfall process. H4D applies modern techniques as a replacement for this old process.

More simply, for years people forgot that before one starts a company or releases a tender for a system, one should really understand the problem being solved. The best way to do that is figuring out “Product-Mission Fit,” or as it’s called in the Lean movement “Product Market Fit,’ before determining if a solution is feasible and viable to pursue.

The H4D method front-loads the process to truly understand the problem and ensure the problem is not a symptom masquerading as a problem or that the problem is just not fully understood. From there, the teams spend time and effort trying to solve it using the Lean methods of H4D/H4MoD.

Once the H4D / H4MoD team understands the problem by doing customer discovery by interviewing 10’s of beneficiaries (people identified as benefiting if the problem is solved), stakeholders, and customers, they then use Lean Startup techniques to work toward a solution.

The premise here, as Steve Blank states, the facts being sought after do not exist inside the building, one must go and talk to people outside of the organisation.  Beneficiary discovery, along with tools used such as the “Mission Model Canvas” mean workable solutions to the problems that warfighters are experiencing are quickly developed.

What can Defence learn from H4D and these novel approaches, and more broadly what can Defence do to create more inclusive spaces for innovation, specifically with academic communities and students?

We have found H4D is key to developing a national defense innovation pipeline. In the U.S., we have seen how H4D creates a new platform for engaging students with their government in a way no other programme does. H4MoD students are dedicated to making a difference in a tangible way. The course is creating a new generation of mission-driven entrepreneurs in the process; that is people who are motivated to deliver dual-use solutions at pace.

We are finding many who go through the class have their eyes opened to new career paths, and are choosing to pursue work in the public sector as a result of their experience in the class.

Importantly, as government sponsors work with the student teams, they benefit by being exposed to different methods of problem solving and working alongside a motivated team intent on solving their problem.  Once they see how the class helps to quickly identify workable solutions to problems that people have sometimes spent months or even years trying to solve a more traditional way, they are eager to find other ways to bring these modern tools and mindsets into their innovation process. 

The impact of H4MoD will be the result of government problem sponsors who are motivated and engaged to work with postgraduate students across the UK and experiment on new ways to solve problems with new tools and techniques.  Building on the area of Defence, we plan to expand to areas around Energy, Policy, Diplomacy and overall government procurement.